In 2018, the entire book world was abuzz with news of the upcoming memoir by Michelle Obama. I had a healthy skepticism heading into my copy. I wasn’t the biggest “Obama fan” and I know that memoirs, especially post-White House memoirs, are often a bit…exaggerated. Everything feels more important when it’s happening to you at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, right? Well…I was so pleasantly surprised with Michelle Obama’s book. It was a breath of fresh air, I felt like I knew her so much better and I loved listening to it on audio and “spending time” with her, almost. I definitely recommend any strong women to read her book–you can find my review here. There’s a reason this book was the best selling book of the year despite coming out in November!
And then, mid-pandemic 2020, it was announced that her husband, former President Barack Obama would be releasing the first of his two-part presidential memoir, A Promised Land, in November. I was pretty excited–I pre-ordered it on Audible, because I prefer non-fiction audiobooks. Especially when it’s an author whose voice you know well, it can make the reading experience a lot better! This book–the first part–clocked in just over 29 hours. I finished it in just over a week, and I have some thoughts.
Well….he’s not his wife, that’s for sure. We all knew that though, didn’t we?
While Michelle Obama’s memoir was about her life–we learned about her parents and her piano teachers and more—this is strictly a presidential memoir. I totally forgot, until about six chapters in, that Obama’s life story had been very well documented in other books, so it makes sense that this memoir starts primarily with his foray into politics. There are a few introductory anecdotes about his upbringing, his college life, et cetera, but then he dives into community organizing and running for state legislature and we’re off the races.
As someone who wasn’t super politically aware in 2008 (as in…I was 13) so it was interesting to hear Obama’s take on his early campaigns. As we all know, Obama likes the sound of his own voice, so he definitely goes into detail in these chapters, but I was pretty surprised by how humble he seemed in these early chapters, and how readily he admitted mistakes and missteps.
Then…he won the presidency, in the midst of a financial crisis I don’t remember well, and all of a sudden, he could do no wrong and everyone was conspiring against him. Maybe they were, I wasn’t there, but once this book transitioned to the White House, the focus on the Financial Crisis and how bad people in Congress were about cow-tailing to him and his administrations’ plans to fix it all were a bit exhausting. I’m someone who has respect for the office no matter who holds it–and I suspect that every president feels somewhat like that—but reading hundreds of pages of it in a book is a little tiresome. It was interesting to learn his insight into some of these goings on, but his recounting of little slights from Mitch McConnell and Bobby Jindal and the like didn’t feel like they really accomplished much, for me as a reader.
The book ends, as you may have heard, with the raid that killed Osama Bid Laden, and that I think is where the book really shined. It feels a lot more fast-paced, even as time ticks on and waiting takes place. It reminded me of how we read about 9/11 now–where were you when, trying to act like nothing was wrong as you read to children, etc. Obama, as a narrator, also had a lot more humility there and deference to the defense professionals around him–which helped heal the earlier wounds he picked at but also just made me tear up a bit, thinking about the hard work of our military doing big things like this in the dark of the night.
Overall….this book is what it is. It’s not going to change your mind about Obama. Maybe it humanizes him a little bit, but it didn’t illuminate anything for me. It didn’t make me feel things. It was a lot of rote facts, some spicy clapbacks about birtherism and Mitch McConnell, and a solid ending, but when book 2 comes around, I might not drop everything to read it. Though it will be interesting to see how he addresses an actual Trump presidential run, won’t it?
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